Monday, July 21, 2008

Lee Siegel does not know the definition of 'definition'

Almost 500 words into his 1,000-word NYT essay on the Barack Obama New Yorker cover, Lee Siegel writes "If you accept this definition of satire, then..." Wait, what definition? I had to scroll up the page looking for where exactly Siegel thought he had provided any sort of definition at all.

Here is what Siegel might have meant to be his definition of satire:
It was a gnawing permanence of everyday life that the satirist lampooned -- i.e., punctured -- to provide a general catharsis.
But there you have the problem of using the term being defined within the definition, which is frowned upon. And there's a substantive problem: just about any sort of humor fits this definition, and not all humor is satire.

Further up the page, I found another possible definition that I think is closer to the point:
For satire has always taken as its target conventions, sentiments and injustices that are universally recognizable and complacently accepted, and not at all hidden phenomena that have to be roughly revealed. The reporter is the one who exposes social rottenness operating in secret. The satirist deposes it once it has become a visible and established part of life.
But this is also a terrible definition. I am pretty sure it would exclude Don Quixote, Catch-22, Candide and The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. So...

This definition issue actually is pretty central to Siegel's argument about the New Yorker cover -- that it is not satire -- although to be honest the piece is a bit of a mess from the jump.

I don't have any particular thoughts to contribute to Siegel's larger thesis except to say that his recommended remedy -- to render the cover "in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen" -- does not seem to me like a recipe for a very hilarious satire.

I do, however, have this opinion to share: Outside of academia, Lee Siegel may very well be the most pretentious writer alive! Who can contest him? He has it all: rabid self-regard, lots of barely-apt literary allusions, and that way of writing above his own head, like he doesn't quite understand his own concepts.

And for definitions of satire, I am fine with Webster's -- or, even better, Dr. Johnson's.

***
Earlier Siegel-bashing:
- Most boringest arts critic ever
- Not alone
- Busted!

1 comment:

Don Hotdog said...

It almost seems like the Honoré Daumier cartoon is meant to be the definition of satire we are being asked to accept. The paragraph describing the cartoon immediately precedes the paragraph starting "If you accept this definition of satire..."

Of course, using an example of something satirical as your definition of satire relieves a writer of having to use words to describe what satire is...so perhaps I am mistaken. That would make Mr. Lee Siegel a very poor writer indeed.